Tag Archives: William Goldman

London Bollywood: Indian film through vintage posters

16 Nov
Raj Kapoor's Bobby: a racy poster for 1976

Raj Kapoor’s Bobby: a racy poster for 1973 — though see below for more extreme

William Goldman noted that romantic comedies and dramas are all about obstacles. We know the couple will get together in the end – the fun lies in preventing them for as long as possible.

In the Western world, there are fewer and fewer barriers of class, wealth, religion and race, leading to ever-more desperate devices to stop couples just shagging on their first date: he’s in a coma (While You Were Sleeping); she’s lost her memory (50 First Dates); he’s mildly nuts (Silver Linings Playbook). But in India, many of the old barriers still apply. It’s one reason why Shakespeare works so well transposed to an Indian setting. And one reason why Bollywood movies can pack such a powerful emotional punch.

Though Bollywood is the world’s second biggest movie producer, until a few years ago I’d hardly seen any Indian films, bar the odd Satyajit Ray (hardly typical!). Now I love them. The drama is bigger, colours are brighter, wounds cut deeper. So I leaped at the chance to get a whistlestop tour of Indian cinema from Bollywood expert Ashanti Omkar.

The occasion was an exhibition of rare posters at the Westbury Gallery in the Westbury Hotel, prior to an auction on Nov 29 by Conferro Auctions. These were some of the highlights:

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Mother India (1957)

The plot is about the difficulties of a single mother that symbolise India’s post-Independence struggles. Equally notable is the fact that Nargis, the famous actress playing the mother, fell in love with the man playing her son (!), and they married soon after. It’s like when I saw Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in 1995, alongside Francesca Annis as his mother – I had never seen such an Oedipal production, the heat between them in the ‘rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ scene was blistering. They too became an item, despite the 19-year age gap. With Mother India, Nargis was actually only 26 at the time, though playing much older: she fell in love with Sunil Dutt after he risked his life to save her from a fire on set. Awww.

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Dara Singh (1960s)

Dara Singh was India’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: a 6’2” wrestler who got into film in 1952, and was especially loved for his roles as Hanuman, the super-strong Monkey God. He later turned successfully to producing, writing and directing, became the head of a studio, and even the first sportsman nominated to the Upper House of the Indian parliament. He died just last year.

cdbp-19Baarish (1957)

According to Ashanti, this poster was exceptionally racy for its day. Why? Because the sari has – gasp! – slipped off Nutan’s (not even bare) shoulder. It is one of the brilliant things about Indian film that the consummation of romance is taboo – until relatively recently, even kisses were pretty much unknown. It gives a yearning and an erotic tension to so many Bollywood movies that Hollywood sex scenes can never match.

Bobby (1973 — see top of blog)

This was, says Ashanti, the movie every young person wanted to see in 1973. Partly because of the racy poster of Dimple Kapadia (Bobby) in a red bikini (see top of blog), and partly because it introduced to Bollywood the genre of star-cross’d teenage lovers from opposite sides of the class/wealth divide. It also introduced director Raj Kapoor’s son in the male lead role: Bollywood is very much a family business.

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Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)

This translates as The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, which sounds like the airline edit of a Spaghetti Western classic. As well as possibly the raciest mainstream Indian film poster EVER (more so than the film, needless to say), the film, again directed by Raj Kapoor, has a terrific plot. A virtuous young woman with a burned face marries a handsome young engineer. Somehow he fails to notice the imperfection beforehand; when he does, he spurns her. She then comes to him in the night; they make love, he not realising it is his wife. When his wife falls pregnant (with his child), he assumes she has been unfaithful… As Ashanti puts, it’s a classic love triangle – with only two people.

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Shree 420 (1955)

Bollywood was HUGE in the Soviet Union, thanks to Raj Kapoor and his Charlie Chaplin-esque character in 1951’s Awaara and in Shree 420. A piece of trivia for Gravity fans: the song the Indian astronaut sings a snatch of is Mera Joota hai Japani (“My shoes are Japanese”) – the big hit from the film.

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Sholay (1975)

Of all the posters at the exhibition, this was the one most photographed. In 2002 a BFI poll ranked it the best Indian film of all time; it’s also, adjusted for inflation, the biggest-grossing. The first Indian movie to be released in 70mm wide-screen format and stereophonic sound, it’s a “Curry Western” that draws heavily from Western tropes even though it’s a cop movie (and musical; and romance; and…). You’ll note from the poster that the producers didn’t sell it short. It is, apparently, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

 

Princess Bride fan a terrorist? Inconceivable!

25 Jan

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A T-shirt slogan caused a security scare on a Qantas flight this week. The passenger’s T-shirt read: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Film fan, terrorist. Easy to confuse. Not.

The growing cult of The Princess Bride is a wonderful thing. Screenwriter William Goldman reckons it’s his finest work, though it took 14 years to reach the screen after the novel’s publication (when the first Fox exec who greenlit it was fired, Goldman writes in Which Lie Did I Tell?, he cared so much about the project that he bought back the rights with his own money). I’ve seen it ten times, and still tear up at the ending: “As you wish.”

The hero and heroine, though stereotypical by definition (it is the paradigm of a fairtytale romance), also have real character. So: the hero is not just dashing, he’s brilliant. He passes a test of swordsmanship, a test of strength, and a test of cunning. And yet, the obstacles to true love are made to seem near-insurmountable throughout, so that we’re on tenterhooks as to whether he will succeed. Brilliant.

As to Buttercup, she could easily be a wet blanket, with her shampoo-ad hair, but it’s interesting at first how she treats the boy, and is despite herself drawn to him; and then as the film progresses she displays considerable courage and perseverance. Gotta root for her too.

And the lines… the best example of their hold on film-goers’ psyches is an American Football game where the ESPN commentators shoehorn in as many references as possible. Watch the YouTube compilation; it’s just a minute and a half, and hilarious: http://bit.ly/RWbQXl.

As the Volkswagen “See Film Differently” campaign shows, memorable films have memorable lines: Taxi Driver’s “You talkin’ to me?”; Jaws’ “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The Princess Bride has that T-shirt slogan, but also “Life is pain”, “The Cliffs of Insanity”, “The Pit of Despair”, “I am not left-handed”, “mostly dead” and, of course, “Inconceivable!”.

Wallace Shawn has starred in over 100 films and TV shows but still, 25 years on, that’s the word that gets shouted at him wherever he goes.

The Princess Bride is on C5, Sun Jan 27, at 16.20.

Salman Rushdie on adapting Midnight’s Children

30 Dec

It’s a truism that great books make lousy movies. Film is about economy of expression; novels (with some exceptions, such as Ian McEwan or Murakami) are about density of language. Salman Rushdie, who has adapted his own gloriously unfilmable novel Midnight’s Children for the screen, even admitted as much in the Screen Talk I attended at the BFI London Film Festival.

Rushdie began his surprisingly warm and funny talk with an old joke about two goats who break into a projection room and start eating reels of celluloid. “What do you think of the movie?” asks one. “I preferred the book,” says the other.

So why do it? Rushdie said he chose to write the screenplay himself so he would have no one else to blame if it all went terribly wrong. It’s to his credit that it doesn’t, quite: the film, like the book, is still critical enough of Indira Gandhi to have angered the ruling Congress party at the Kerala Film Festival, and it was only a few days ago that it finally secured a release date (Feb 1) in India. And to anyone who hasn’t read the original, it will still be an enthralling, colourful epic. But it doesn’t work as a film.

The sprawling narrative about the end of colonial rule in India and the problems of Partition requires way too much exposition, not helped by the late addition of a voiceover (narrated by Rushdie) which the director decided was needed to retain the flavour of the book’s prose. More problematic are the magic realist elements – a group of children, born at the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947 when India achieved independence, grow up each with their own superpower – which just seem silly on screen. You half expect Ian McKellen to show up in his Magneto hat.

“Kill your babies,” William Goldman famously said of screenwriting. Rushdie is no King Herod. He did say he was proud of an extra scene he added at the end, where the two rivals confront each other; but he might more usefully have worked on his skills of subtraction.

Rushdie spoke movingly at the LFF Screen Talk of his long love of film, honed in a rep cinema while an undergraduate at Cambridge (just as I had the Penultimate Picture Palace and the Phoenix while at Oxford – that first taste of European art movie, Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, lifted the top of my head clean off). Let’s hope Rushdie now turns his hand to an original screenplay.